When Richard Colon—better known as Crazy Legs from the Rock Steady Crew—saw the devastation that transpired after Hurricane Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, he knew he had to do something about it. Since then, he’s visited the island more than seven times to help his fellow natives in the fight to restore their homeland.
In October, Colon installed clean water filters in a partnership with the non-profit organization, Waves for Water. Now, the Bronx native recently released a documentary in partnership with Red Bull titled, Puerto Rico Relief: Six Months Since Hurricane Maria Aid Continues. The 10-minute documentary excels at showcasing the many issues that the island has endured and exposed those who are left in the margins of society because of a disability like the hearing impaired or those that have special needs.
Amid the much-needed assistance that the filtration systems will alleviate, Puerto Rico is still—as evidently shown in the short film— in dire circumstances. According to CNN, around 283 schools in the commonwealth are closing due to a steep drop in enrollment. Since last May, schools have reportedly lost a total of 38,762 students.
“To tell you the truth once I get on a plane, and leave the island I feel like I’m completely out of the loop,” Colon tells VIBE. “Every time I leave I feel like all the information I get at this point is going to be old. But I would say the progress is like the video we just put out; that’s a representation of coming together by the diaspora and the people who were born on the island.”
Ahead of the documentary's debut at Cooper Union, Crazy Legs discussed his stance on Puerto Rico's independence and his feelings toward the U.S. government.
VIBE: Tell me about your connection to Puerto Rico as you were growing up in New York City?
Crazy Legs: My connection to the island was zero to none as a youth in New York City growing up in The Bronx. The Boogie Down Bronx was known as the burndown Bronx as well, so it was really about survival. The only thing I had a connection to was that my father and my uncles had migrated from Puerto Rico.
They came to the United States for a new life and job opportunities. I don’t know where the idea of not educating us on our Boricuaness got lost—maybe it was lost in the struggle of trying to settle into the United States and become Americanized. I didn’t get into the knowledge of self until I was challenged about my so-called Puerto Rican pride. Afrika Bambaataa actually told me once, ‘You say you’re proud to be Puerto Rican, but what are you proud of outside of the music and food?'
From that moment on I started learning more about the history. I had learned that Hunter College had a vast amount of information compared to anyone else when it came to Puerto Rican studies, so I was able to get some paperwork from there, and that was the beginning of it. I told myself, ‘The day I am able to buy a home I’m going to buy a home in Puerto Rico.’
When it came to the pride aspect of things, I look at people like Roberto Clemente, Pedro Albizu Campos and just different people who have contributed to social awareness and activism. Things like that formed my pride. I don’t look to the music and food for pride because that’s everyone whether you’re Dominican, Puerto Rican or Cuban; that’s all pretty much the same.
What spurred your interest in helping out the country?
I was actually supposed to go to Puerto Rico to have some meetings, and scout some venues for my music festival Puerto Rock Steady, and that was right before Hurricane Irma. When I found out that Hurricane Irma was coming it wasn’t going to be reasonable for me to go to Puerto Rico, and accomplish that.
I ended up me changing my flight and going out there to see what I can do for relief efforts and volunteer my time. I wasn’t going to go there after a hurricane, and just be like, ‘Hey I’d like to do my music festival again.' It didn’t seem like it was going to be on the sensitive side, so I just wanted to go help my people. Then I changed my ticket, and next thing you know shortly after that Hurricane Maria is coming right behind it. Then we were made aware of the destruction that was going to come because it was a level five hurricane.
I happened to be going to Holland at the time for an event. It really hit me there was some serious damage that was going to happen to Puerto Rico. That made me really emotional, and the emotion and concern that I had just made it really difficult for me to be in an environment where people were asking me to take pictures, sign autographs, and be social. After a while being at that event I literally was fighting back my emotions and trying to remain professional. I told the promoter, ‘I have to get out of here, I have to go. I’m back to the hotel, I can’t be here right now,’ and I just walked out. I couldn’t explain it, I just said I had to leave. As I was saying that, I felt like I was just going to burst out crying right there.
I felt like the only people who really had my back or take me serious enough or act upon that immediately was Red Bull. I was literally balling my eyes out when I was writing my letter to Red Bull and I basically just poured my heart out. I said, ‘I am desperate, can you help me help out my people.'
Next thing you know Red Bull partnered me up with Waves for Water and their whole initiative for a water filtration system. Because they had a relationship with them things worked out really fast, and I ended up being on one of the first planes to land in Puerto Rico. Red Bull charted a plane for me and five other people, and we were some of the first people on the ground, the first responders to do major work in Puerto Rico.
Did you initially know you wanted to make a documentary about your experience there?
I was too emotional to think about anything like that. I felt like a concerned parent. I was just worried. All I could think about is ‘What can I do?’ When filming was brought to my attention—deep in my heart I feel like I would hate anyone to think I’m trying to exploit this for some personal gain on some media attention. Throughout my life when I’ve done food drives and volunteer work I’ve made it a point to not involve press because I felt like when you do things like that you’re giving, and it should just be about that.
Red Bull said they were going to have my back in the long haul for this one. And people taught me how important it is to keep the message and dialogue going so that enables you to continue your mission further along down the road and it was something that I had to learn to be comfortable with for the bigger picture.
I’ve read that you’ve been back to Puerto Rico seven times since the hurricane. What has the progress been like?
There’s progress (long pause)...it’s a tough one because there are a lot of band-aids put all over the place. Some are long lasting band-aids while policy and more resources come in to help people. But the grid was already in shambles before all of this happened.
One of the things that may have been helpful is that they probably fixed things that needed to be fixed before the hurricane, as they were fixing all the things that were affected after the hurricane. So that’s good, but you’re talking about a system where you have constant rolling blackouts. You have these blackouts that are happening five times a week.
And sometimes it’s several hours and it really cripples business. You show up to open your restaurant and all the lights go out and then you’re shut down for the rest of the day because now you have to take into consideration sanitary conditions, refrigeration, so it’s really hard to say. I think the fact that some people have found a way to get back to some sort of normal lifestyle is good.
Was there anything in the documentary that wasn’t shown that you wish would have made the cut?
This one woman, Ana Figueroa, raised money and put that money together for the sake of bringing toys to Puerto Rico during Three Kings Day, and it didn’t work out that way. But it worked out way better when we were able to replace different kinds of toys that were used at this organization called SER, which deals with special needs children, like autistic children and adults as well. We were able to replace the necessary tools for two of their locations on the island, which benefited maybe 200 to 300 kids.
Then there’s an organization called Tainas Unidas which is a group of women with their male supporters as well, who have been able to get hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico directly into the hands of the people who are needing it most. That was another thing that we worked on together. There are a lot of stories like that and I believe that as much as we’re doing they are just a small part of it when you look at the big picture. I wish we can do more, but things are what they are. But we still have a reason to be proud of the work that we’ve done, and the way we’ve come together.
What did you learn about yourself throughout this whole experience?
I went to Puerto Rico as a Puerto Rican and left as a human being.
A lot of Puerto Rican artists like Residente have been very vocal about Puerto Rico gaining its independence from the United States. What are your thoughts on that?
I agree. I feel like Puerto Rico is one of the bastard children of the United States, and if that’s the case let us go and allow us to have the freedom to get aid from other countries. Allow us to flourish with our trade, our agriculture, and a better opportunity for education.
There are a lot of countries who wanted to help Puerto Rico during the crisis and were turned away because of laws and policies of the United States. Here’s the thing: those things being what they are I could’ve gone on a mission, and raised hell and talked about a lot about that. But I feel Red Bull put me in an opportunity to help people immediately and there are a lot of other people who are more well-versed when it comes to speaking on things like that.
How do you feel about the way the government handled the aftermath of the hurricane, and how it was portrayed in the media?
If the government was doing what it was capable of, I would have never had to have gone down there. All of us as citizens, and Puerto Ricans and human beings, went down there because we knew there was a vibe of desperation that wasn’t being dealt with. We went down there to fill in the void wherever we can and made it so we can help people on the lowest level possible, and reach areas that no one else was willing to go to or care to go to. To me that’s important.